Chinese shuttlers are not known to embrace opponents at the net when a match ends. Curt, barely grazing handshakes, yes. But a warm, grinning hug and an applauding pat on the back will be seen at the top levels of badminton seldom to never. Others have followed suit, and kept things formal and aloof as a result of which opponents in international shuttle are hardly ever seen talking to each other. It’s the norm and from a distance always seems like a group of alpha — athletes who are either way too business-like and hyper-competitive to make eye contact or far too paranoid about risking human interface and infection.
That, or the net on a badminton court, is too awkwardly tall for a hug and pleasant conversation.
Chen Long, a 6’2” champ, loomed over the net menacingly throughout his semifinal against Indian Kidambi Srikanth at Hong Kong. In the final set which snapped the Indian’s dream run of two Super Series tournament weeks with a brusque 21-6 scoreline, the top-seeded Chinese player even hulked around the court sending down his dreaded down-the-line smashes and Srikanth simply lacked the firepower for a decisive riposte.
But once the rival was silenced after 1 long hour and 4 short minutes (the scoreline 21-17, 19-21, 21-6 explains the ebb and flow of the encounter) and a sandwiched set where Srikanth packed in a spicy stuffing for the Chinaman, Chen Long was at the net hugging Srikanth. He patted his opponent on the back appreciating the fight he’d put up to lend this face-off the solemnity of a rivalry worth opening of a chapter.
No one was in any doubt looking at the third set and how Chen Long demolished his opponent of how dominant the Chinese can be.
But it was the bold defiance throughout the first two sets that Srikanth will be proud of even if his dreamy spell of 9 matches was finally broken.
The Indian committed errors, was spangled on the floor twice retrieving a deep hit and lost the battle at the net with tired returns. His attacking smash which looks fiendish against a lesser opponent paled visibly in front of Chen Long’s booming howitzer. And the Chinese seemed to be operating in a vertical field of at least 12 feet — bending real low for a thorough defence inches off the floor and jumping high to send down his blitzing smashes. But Srikanth wasn’t outplayed, merely outgunned.
The Indian bridged a 10-3 scoreline of the first set and came as close as 18-17, using wristy angles from the fore and mid-court and beautiful disguises that caught Long at awkward lengths close to his face, even as the Chinese smashed his way out of trouble. A Chen Long smash is a thing of steep gravity, and Srikanth did well to prolong rallies and set up his winners. Long had the last word on the matter winning 21-17, but he was on his toes.
In the second, Srikanth became downright annoying to a restless Long who would’ve been keen on wrapping it up quickly, but found himself wrong-footed and trailing for the first time in a set at 9-8. Emboldened, Srikanth’s smashes got going and though they weren’t the steep projectiles, the placements and follow ups earned him his winners as he levelled the sets and dragged Long into a decider.
Srikanth may have been tiring, or Long made him look beat as he hurled smashes and upped his pace ending Srikanth’s run.
“Srikanth needs to get stronger physically,” coach Gopichand said, drawing the blatant conclusion but the coach was happy with what his lad had managed over the fortnight.
“He hadn’t been performing that well till the Asian Games. But the last two weeks, he’s looked sharp, played smart and attacking and I’m happy how he responded to the Lin Dan win with a strong first round win at Hong Kong immediately after,” he added.
He insisted that reaching top 10 was one goal reached. “But it’s important we celebrate his victory and then move onto bigger goals,” he ended.